Cabinet Corner: “Reimagining the Many Dimensions of Mission”

Cabinet Corner is a periodic feature of LMU This Week where the university’s executive leaders share their perspectives with the community. The President’s Cabinet will provide updates on initiatives, policies, events, challenges, and areas of interest.

John T. Sebastian, vice president for Mission and Ministry, writes:

A year ago I announced in this space the formation of a new presidential Interfaith Task Force charged with developing the university’s strategic vision for advancing interreligious understanding at LMU. I am pleased to report that since then staff, faculty, and administrators from across the university have engaged in thinking about how to foster constructive dialogue among persons of different faiths and of no faith and how to advance a vision of pluralism built on authentic respect for, and appreciation of, difference. In the coming weeks and months I look forward to sharing with you some of the first fruits of the task force’s labor.

In the meantime, I want to let you know about a few recent developments in the realm of mission and Catholic identity and, in particular, to announce that beginning this semester the Center for Religion and Spirituality and the Academy of Catholic Thought and Imagination will become part of the Office of Mission and Ministry, with the directors of both reporting to me. Let me explain how and why we have decided to make this change.

During 2017-18, LMU undertook a yearlong, institution-wide Mission Priority Examen, which derived its name and inspiration from the distinctive form of reflective prayer developed and encouraged by St. Ignatius. The purpose of that undertaking was to answer two fundamental questions: (1) does LMU wish to continue to be a Catholic university in the Jesuit and Marymount traditions; and (2) if so, what does it mean for us to live out that identity over the next five to 10 years? Without hesitation our community answered the first question in the affirmative and, thanks to the generous labor of many faculty, staff, students, and trustees, identified nearly a dozen action items under two headings — enhance opportunities for formation for mission and strengthen the links between faith and justice — in response to the second.

The Examen process included a visit from an external team of experts in Jesuit and Catholic higher education whose role was not so much to determine whether we had answered the two questions correctly but to affirm us in our choice of future priorities and to help us identify any gaps we missed along the way. Our external peers were generous with their praise for our commitment to our mission and unhesitatingly endorsed our priorities and action items. They did, however, flag one potential obstacle on the path to achieving our ambitions, namely, the decentralized organization of the many mission-centered institutes and programs at LMU. They noted with general appreciation — and maybe even a tinge of envy! — the many resources, both financial and human, that we have invested in, for example, the Academy of Catholic Thought and Imagination, Campus Ministry, the Marymount Institute, and the Center for Service and Action. Yet they also observed that these units and others like them operate more or less in isolation, barring the occasional collaboration or co-sponsored event, with the result that their combined impact on shaping the university’s approach to, and embodiment of, its mission might be less than the sum of the parts. They strongly encouraged us to think about how we could better coordinate and integrate the work of these programs.

That critique has been the subject of much conversation in the nearly two years since the visiting team came to Westchester. President Snyder, Provost Poon, and I, with the benefit of wise counsel from many other interlocutors at LMU, have explored how we could seize on the evaluators’ advice to integrate and coordinate, and we have come up with a couple of ideas. The first was to create the Mission Leadership Council. This body, chaired by me, consists of the heads of the various mission units I named above, along with several others. The council began meeting this past fall and was charged by the president and provost with overseeing the implementation and assessment of our Mission Priority Examen outcomes and for seeking remedies for the lack of coordination and integration among the mission units.

Recently Provost Poon and I started a conversation about the benefits of further structural reorganization and decided that the university’s mission would benefit from the Center for Religion and Spirituality  and the Academy of Catholic Thought and Imagination joining Campus Ministry, the Center for Ignatian Spirituality, and the CSJ Center for Reconciliation and Justice within the Office of Mission and Ministry. The departments in Mission and Ministry support the liturgical and sacramental life of our community; foster the formation and spiritual growth of students, faculty, and staff; promote the distinctive elements and the shared characteristics of the charisms of LMU’s three sponsoring religious congregations; and coordinate advocacy and action on behalf of social justice. CRS and ACTI foreground additional approaches to mission through their respective foci on developing ministers, educators, and pastoral leaders throughout neighboring parishes, and creating communities of scholars who animate the Catholic intellectual tradition at LMU. By bringing these units together, these many dimensions of mission may more productively and creatively reinforce one another.

While only time will tell what increased coordination and integration might yield, I feel confident in predicting several outcomes of this new arrangement. First the fundamental purposes of CRS and ACTI will remain the same while impediments to cross-departmental cooperation will be reduced. Second, a reimagined office will enable us to develop an integrated approach to fundraising as part of the comprehensive campaign as well as better assessment and evaluation mechanisms for our mission activities. And finally, at a time when LMU is taking bold steps to evolve its curriculum, its athletics program, its visual identity, and its facilities, we will likewise be able to modernize our approach to mission.

LMU is nestled within the largest and most diverse archdiocese in the United States and at the nexus of the tech and entertainment industries and at the gateway to both Latin America and the Pacific Rim. We have a unique opportunity to set the tone for what American Catholic higher education looks like in the decades to come and to help guide the Church navigating the dialogue between faith and culture. These modest changes are a good first step to positioning LMU as the leader in Catholic higher education.